It is said that history does not exactly repeat itself, but it often rhythms. Such is the case which President Barack Obama’s ill-conceived decision to escalate the American military intervention in Afghanistan. The rationalizations and flawed assumptions offered by President Obama in his West Point address to the nation could be lifted from the oratorical flourishes that another president, Lyndon Johnson, offered more than 40 years ago in defence of a disastrous military intervention in the internal civil war that transpired in Vietnam.
The ultimate tragedy is that Barack Obama is fully aware of the inevitable comparison his critics will offer with the disastrous Vietnam enterprise. He gave expression to his awareness with a lame rebuttal of the arguments advanced by those who are deeply concerned about another Vietnam. The essence of Obama’s case for why Afghanistan is not Vietnam is based on three points, which he articulated as follows:
“Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action. Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border.”
Obama presents as his leading argument for deploying an additional 30,000 troops the claim that a “broad coalition” of 43 countries supports the U.S. war in Afghanistan. For a politician who opposed the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, I am surprised that Barack Obama must scrape from the bottom of the barrel of intellectual credulity and present one of the leading reassurances of the Bush administration for going to war with Iraq. I am certain that I am not the only observer who recalls Donald Rumsfeld, Defence Secretary under President Bush, who boasted to the American people that when America invaded Iraq, it would be joined by one of the largest international coalitions in history, the so-called “coalition of the willing.” Ironically, it is now Obama who must resurrect Rumsfeld’s unique verbal contortions to justify his policies.
So what about those 43 nations that President Obama heralds as partners in a grand military coalition? As with the Rumsfeld “grand coalition” in Iraq, it is largely smoke and mirrors. Very few of those nations have deployed more than a battalion of soldiers to Iraq. More commonly, these coalition members have provided a microscopic military presence, with rules of engagement that often preclude their forces from combat. For example, in early 2009 Singapore had 9 soldiers in Afghanistan, Ireland 7 and Iceland 2. Yet these three nations are included in Obama’s “grand coalition” of 43 nations.
All told, there are fewer than 40,000 foreign troops deployed in Afghanistan, alongside approximately 70,000 American soldiers. During the Vietnam war, by comparison, South Korea sent 300,000 combat troops and Australia 50,000 in support of the U.S. war effort. So while Obama can claim more countries are assisting the United States in Afghanistan than occurred during the Vietnam war, if one counts actual soldiers as opposed to using Rumsfeld-style bookkeeping, Lyndon Johnson was far more successful in enlisting foreign support in terms of actual troop deployments to the operational theatre.
President Obama also claims that the U.S. is not facing a popular insurgency in Afghanistan, as it was during the Vietnam conflict. This statement betrays a level of historical ignorance that is truly inexplicable, especially coming from a man with an impressive level of intellectual acumen. The Soviet Union also claimed it was not confronting a popular insurgency when it invaded and occupied Afghanistan. One almost senses that Obama lifted this rationalization from a Kremlin talking-points document. If nothing else, President Obama`s characterization of the insurgency in Afghanistan as lacking popular support is contradicted not only by current events on the ground, but by the essential continuity of Afghan history. This is a land that is genetically hostile to foreign occupiers, irrespective of the justification the external power employed for its military intervention in Afghanistan.
The final point offered by President Obama in defence of military escalation in Afghanistan is linkage with 9/11; this was the base where Al-Qaeda initiated the attacks on America. In the wake of September 11, 2001 the United States had complete justification to destroy Al-Qaeda, including its infrastructure in Afghanistan. However, for many years a previous administration decided that America’s military priorities lay elsewhere, specifically Iraq. It was also the U.S. that installed an utterly corrupt and inept government in Afghanistan, an act which in itself has proven to be the greatest enabler for the resurgence of the Taliban. Due to American mistakes and strategic miscalculations, the current situation in Afghanistan is far different than what existed in September 2001.
As with Vietnam, and not distinct from that Southeast Asian catastrophe of so long ago, the U.S. is left with the sole recognizable goal of propping up an unpopular and corrupt government, in this case the Karzai regime and its coterie of drug-trafficking warlords. And inevitably, as with Vietnam, a growing segment of the population in Afghanistan will increasingly resent the foreign military presence on their soil, and join the insurgency.
A final point which should be raised was unfortunately ignored in Obama`s speech. If Al-Qaeda is the central enemy in this conflict, what is their strategy? Osama bin Laden has been very clear in stating his objective, which is to reduce America to a shadow of itself. He knows this cannot be achieved on the battlefield, witnessed by the estimate offered by America’s own intelligence agencies, which calculates Al-Qaeda’s contingent in Afghanistan at not more than 100 fighters, an insignificant fraction of the insurgent forces confronting the U.S. and its “grand coalition.” However, Al-Qaeda leaders have in the past suggested that their core strategy is to compel the U.S. to wage wars in the depth of the Islamic world, in the process economically and financially bankrupting America while arousing hostility towards the U.S. among Muslims worldwide.
With the U.S. economy in tatters, and the continuation of America’s military project costing $100 billion per year, President Obama has chosen a path that can only lead to the creation of a new quagmire. In that outcome, it is sadly President Barack Obama, and not his critics, who has engaged in a false reading of history.